ForeWord Reviews The Rope Catcher 

“Suppose one day you actually get what you’ve wished for … what happens then?” That question permeates a satisfying historical novel by Larry Stillman, a story that delves into a little discussed era to draw out struggles and concerns common to the human experience, and particularly significant to a group of people who helped end a war that tore apart the world.

The Rope Catcher draws on other powerful themes, such as finding your place in the world, especially when the world doesn’t want to accept you. It’s about the American Indian experience and soldiers returning from war. It’s about giving it all you’ve got and still struggling. And it’s the story of the fight between tradition and change.

In Stillman’s tale, Navajo Jimmie Goodluck longs to escape the reservation, a place that offers little hope or purpose. It is World War II, so he joins the marines. They assign him and other young Navajos to help develop a top-secret communications code based on the Navajo language after all other codes have been broken. “The cavalry finally has sense to bring in the Indians,” he quips. Jimmie and others create the mission-essential code, risk their lives in valiant battle, and ultimately help win the war. Eager to leave those horrors behind, but not the military brotherhood, Jimmie returns home. Now he must find himself again, discover a new purpose, and regain the acceptance he once knew. And he must also bring positive change to his people, starting with the reservation. For “there are always wars to fight.” But with a people hesitant to abandon their traditions, this mission may be his hardest yet.

The story offers a clear, compelling narrator’s voice and makes the Navaho experience and viewpoint understandable. The writing is strong, with a crisp narrative style that presents historical insights seamlessly. Although that voice takes a few pages to get used to, the plot brings vivid action filled with strong characters. And while jumps in time occasionally make things a little choppy, this is easily overlooked. This book presents an insider’s look at a fascinating part of history.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this book, as will anyone interested in World War II, the Native American experience, or the code talkers themselves. For anyone else who loves good fiction, it’s simply a likeable read. Along the way, it’ll make readers think about their own dreams and about the lebnghts they might go to fight for them and make a difference. After all, as the author writes, “What happens after your dream comes true? … You fight to keep that dream alive. You don’t let anything—or anyone—take it away from you.”

Diane Gardner
January 18, 2013

Publisher's Weekly reviews A Match Made in Hell

Rarely has the old saw about war making strange bedfellows been more appropriate than in this story of a small 16-year-old Jewish boy and one of rural Poland’s most notorious criminals, Jan Kopec.  Stillman has found a very different kind of Holocaust story, full of drama and adventure.  When Hitler’s army invaded Poland in 1939, Goldner and his rural Jewish family were spared from immediate roundup.  But by 1943, he had witnessed his mother and sister being headed onto a train and had been left for dead beneath his father’s body, both of them shot and bayoneted by a collaborator who had been one of his father’s  friends.  After Kopec, Goldner’s unlikely rescuer, nursed him back to health, the pair began an 18-month partnership in which Kopec received money from partisans for having Goldner carry out acts of sabotage against the Nazis.  His small size, courage and ability to learn—Kopec trained his young charge in marksmanship, a renegade German soldier taught him fluent German, and a Gypsy trained him in hand-to-hand combat— resulted in impressive victories for area partisans.  Goldner blew up trains and bridges used by the Nazi army and photographed Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Stillman has done a remarkable job tracking down what little documentation exists in order to corroborate Goldner’s unique story, making a trip to the region, meeting with former neighbors and with the children and grandchildren of Jan Kopec.

Booklist Reviews A Match Made in Hell

"I can remember crawling out from beneath my father's lifeless body." From the first line, this Holocaust memoir grips you with its searing action. At the same time, it raises crucial moral issues. In 1943, in southern Poland, Morris Goldner, 16, was rescued by Jan Kopec, a notorious criminal who trained the small, quiet Jewish kid as a ruthless accomplice in armed robberies and sold the boy's services to the partisans. Now Goldner lives in Chicago, haunted forever by what he saw and what he did. Stillman allows the survivor to tell his story in a riveting first-person narrative. On the one hand, it reads like a fast-paced Bonnie-and-Clyde outlaw adventure. But there's absolutely no romanticism either about the Holocaust horror the boy witnesses (including the roundup and massacre of his own family) or about his own role as robber, saboteur, and killer. The outlaw brutalizes the boy; did the boy humanize Kopec? When is killing justified? Discussion groups will want this one. (Reviewed November 1, 2003) Copyright 2003 Booklist Reviews 


A Navajo Indian veteran of World War II—part of the famous “code talkers” unit—feels torn between tradition and the white man’s world in this absorbing tale of fractured identities. 

Frustrated with his aimless life on an economically depressed Arizona reservation, 28-year-old Jimmie Goodluck signs up with the Marine Corps in 1942 and gets slotted into an all-Navajo platoon. Already toughened by hardscrabble desert life, the Navajo recruits thrive in the military, one of the few American institutions that treats them with respect (except when they’re mistaken for Japanese spies). They’re especially valued because of their assignment to develop a code based on the Navajo language, virtually impossible to decipher, for rapid radio communications. In an earnestly gung-ho but rather sketchy narrative, the war takes Jimmie and his comrades from Guadalcanal to the bloodbath at Iwo Jima. His story deepens when he comes home in 1946, horizons expanded, to a reservation where little seems to have changed: Jobs are scarce, poverty deep, racism ubiquitous and government callous. (The uncompensated slaughter of Navajo livestock to prevent overgrazing is a particular sore point.) During peyote rituals, he sees mystic visions that seem to endorse his father’s bitter suspicion of the white man. Yet Jimmie is also drawn to other forces, including a progressive family of tribal leaders and the fetching sister of a slain comrade who wants to help her people in thoroughly modern ways.

Stillman (A Match Made in Hell, 2005) paints a rich portrait of Navajo life with an impressive depth and detail, steeping the reader in vibrant folkways and grand, austere landscapes. But he also portrays a backward-looking, claustrophobic society seething with ancient vendettas that shape and limit his characters. The subtle, sensitive prose captures the psychological complexity of the people who live there as they walk a tightrope bridge between a warm but fading past and a future of hope and uncertainty. 

A well-wrought, moving saga of reservation life in the throes of change that feels both painful and exhilarating.